The other day, when the Anti-Defamation League came out against building a mosque near Ground Zero, I think I heard a sound—the sound of chickens coming home to roost.
The ADL calls itself “the nation’s premier civil rights/human relations agency.” Coming from an explicitly Jewish organization, that’s an audacious claim. But it’s an inspiring one, too. The ADL was born in 1913, after a Georgia jury falsely convicted a Jewish factory owner named Leo Frank of murdering a Christian employee. The men who defamed, and later lynched, Frank were anti-Semites. But they were not only anti-Semites. Three months after Frank’s murder, some of his tormenters met on Georgia’s Stone Mountain to refound the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that would now dedicate itself not merely to terrorizing African-Americans, but to terrorizing Catholics and Jews as well.
What if white victims of African-American crime protested the building of a black church in their neighborhood? Or gentile victims of Bernie Madoff protested the building of a synagogue?
Sharif El-Gamal, developer of the Ground Zero mosque, defends it in an interview with NY1.
Against this backdrop, the founders of the ADL made their organization a kind of mirror image of the Klan. If the Klan saw anti-Semitism as one component of the struggle to maintain white, Protestant supremacy, the ADL would make its opposition to anti-Semitism one component of the struggle against white, Protestant supremacy. If bigotry was indivisible, anti-bigotry would be indivisible too. “The immediate object of the League is to stop, by appeals to reason and conscience and, if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people,” declared the ADL’s charter. “Its ultimate purpose is to secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike and to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.”
For much of the 20th century, the ADL lived this mission well. It opposed Joe McCarthy, lobbied for civil rights, and denounced the anti-Catholic bigots who insinuated that John F. Kennedy would take orders from Rome. Then came the creation of the state of Israel. For the ADL, Israel posed a conundrum: the conundrum of Jewish power. In the United States, it was relatively easy to oppose all forms of discrimination while still serving particular Jewish interests, since Jews—by virtue of their place in society—were bigotry’s victims but rarely its main perpetrators. But Israel was different. While Israel’s Jews certainly suffered from Arab bigotry and violence, the Jewish state also perpetrated a great deal of bigotry and violence itself, especially after 1967, when it made itself occupier of millions of Palestinians to whom it denied the vote.
Had the ADL genuinely tried to apply its universalistic mandate to the Jewish state, it would have become something like the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) or B’Tselem (full disclosure: I’m on B’Tselem’s American board): Israeli human rights organizations that struggle against all forms of bigotry, and thus end up spending a lot of time defending Muslims and Christian Palestinians against discrimination by Jews. But the ADL hasn’t done that. Instead it has become, in essence, two organizations. In the United States, it still links the struggle against anti-Semitism to the struggle against bigotry against non-Jews. In Israel, by contrast, it largely pretends that government-sponsored bigotry against non-Jews does not exist. When Arizona passes a law that encourages police to harass Latinos, the ADL expresses outrage. But when Israel builds 170 kilometers of roads in the West Bank for the convenience of Jewish settlers, from which Palestinians are wholly or partially banned, the ADL takes out advertisements declaring, “The Problem Isn’t Settlements.”
For a long time now, the ADL seems to have assumed that it could exempt Israel from the principles in its charter and yet remain just as faithful to that charter inside the United States. But now the chickens are coming back home to America to roost. The ADL’s rationale for opposing the Ground Zero mosque is that “building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain—unnecessarily—and that is not right.” Huh? What if white victims of African-American crime protested the building of a black church in their neighborhood? Or gentile victims of Bernie Madoff protested the building of a synagogue? Would the ADL for one second suggest that sensitivity toward people victimized by members of a certain religion or race justifies discriminating against other, completely innocent, members of that religion or race? Of course not. But when it comes to Muslims, the standards are different. They are different in Israel, and now, it is clear, they are different in the United States, too.
Indifference to the rights and dignity of Palestinians is a cancer eating away at the moral pretensions of the American Jewish establishment. Last Friday, in the case of the ADL, we learned just how far that cancer has spread.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.